Some Strange Behavior Behind
Departure of United Way Boss
By Mike Kirby
Five weeks before the big “signature” benefit at Smith College in January of 2005, there had been an entry in the Daily Hampshire Gazette’s district court log, just one line. On Nov. 30, 2004, a Lewis Stess of Westhampton pleaded not guilty to a charge of assault and battery; the case was continued to Dec. 29, 2004.
Stess had been the new president at the United Way of Hampshire County for only 11 months. He had unveiled an ambitious effort to raise the agency’s visibility and undertaken a program to train leadership in partnership with the Chamber of Commerce. He was in the paper frequently talking about the United Way and the new approach the national organization was taking. No longer would the organization merely raise money for affiliate social service agencies; it now was going to undertake high-impact programs to address the fundamentals of social problems. It had gone after the Boy Scouts in 2000, now here was Stess talking to the press about the Girl Scouts having to justify themselves to get funding.
A former board member told me that the day following this incident at his home in Westhampton, Lewis Stess allegedly went down to the Daily Hampshire Gazette and "pleaded" with an editor not to do a story on his problems. No story was done. The cover-up even included a blacked-out docket number on the District Court. When asked about the case, the clerk went into the back room, and downstreet.net was told to talk to the supervising judge of the Northampton District Court, Richard J. Carey. He had sealed all the records on the case.
At the United Way office no one knew anything; Stess had dropped out of sight. The fall is the busiest time at the United Way. A staff person called his home on the second or third day he was gone, and talked to his roommate, Michael Philipson. Something had happened. He wasn’t well; he couldn’t come into the office. He eventually showed up sporting a bandage and a black eye.
Mysterious Calls to the Office
In the days that followed the incident, the person allegedly involved in this incident called up the office frequently demanding to talk to Stess.
"A real wing-nut," said a staff member, "He was making threats galore, talking crazy."
All this action freaked out the women who worked in the office, especially the phone calls from Mr. “X.”
"Lewis didn't handle this business very well," said a staff member. "If he had come in the next morning and explained what was happening, everyone would have been on his side. As we understood it, it was domestic violence. Lewis said he had been assaulted.”
There was even a suggestion, according to this person, of a second incident at the Stess home, but no confirmation of that could be verified by downstreet.net.
Stess’s legal problems went all the way up to a board meeting. Two businessmen on the board said that if Stess had been on their payroll, he would have been fired because his private life and his involvement in domestic violence were jeopardizing the safety of office employees.
“If he’d been working for me, I would have showed him the door,” said one board member. “You have to protect your people from stuff like this.”
Stess was said to portray himself to the executive committee of the board as a gay man who was a victim of domestic violence. He found a sympathetic audience in Judi Marksbury of Smith College, the chair of the United Way board. She was in Stess’s corner unreservedly from then on, pushing his point of view with the board, and defending him from the conservative "Old Guard” of United Way, most of whom departed by the 2005 annual meeting.
I have spent quite a few hours over the last months talking to United Way dissidents, staff, ex-staff, present and former board members and affiliate executives. Long-dammed frustrations just spill out of them. Some of them tell me that they only have a few minutes, and then hours go by as they talk and laugh and complain. At the end of it, they seem to feel better, but all these people carry thorns, and the thorns still hurt.
One old-timer said that the recently revealed problems with the United Way started a long time ago. One staff member said that the board of directors was dysfunctional even back to the time when John Sheehan was the executive director, or president. He never really bothered them much with money or financial questions.
Fault lines formed along territorial and class lines, according to many who were interviewed. On one side were liberal Northampton-based people: the last three board chairs were Smith faculty or administrators. On the other side were conventional, more conservative United Way people from business and industry, and those who had a more regional base. Hampshire County is still largely rural or suburban, but the leadership in the local United Way is largely drawn from Northampton and its office is in the city’s downtown.
The office on King Street has always been a bone of contention to staff people. It is small, nearly invisible, and not handicapped accessible. Many years ago the Stavros agency did a study to prepare the agency to make the decision to either move to another location or remodel the present office. The study is still gathering dust. The board viewed moving to a place like Hadley with great reluctance. Eastern Hampshire County has always been badly served by social service agencies and law-enforcement, whose staff members enjoy being able to go to Jake’s or Sylvester’s for lunch. Ware and Belchertown have stubborn pockets of poverty, but have always been neglected by county agencies, which are heavily concentrated in the county seat.
Board Slow to Act
One person who helped out with United Way fund drives said that there always was a glacial aspect to the board; it made decisions only after a great deal of study and deliberation. Years would go by, studies would be made, and then criteria would be formulated. There developed an odd kind of distance and detachment from the partner social agencies the organization served, he said.
The new buzzword for United Way was “impact” and feeding the apprehension among member agencies was the new direction that United Ways were being encouraged to go by Brian Gallagher, who has headed the national United Way since January 2002. He came from United Way in Central Ohio, and while there he took the affiliate into new territory, spearheading an effort to fight homelessness through helping homeless families get into apartments, and provide them with day care and job training. The United Way was no longer just the fundraiser; it was developing social programs, aligning itself with local and state governments, and usurping the traditional autonomy of the local agencies. The new approach was “customer oriented” and supported initiatives that produced measurable results. It was and is a good idea, but here in Northampton it never went much beyond resolutions, meetings and policy statements. To carry it off requires some real sophistication, political savvy and knowledge of social problems.
Perhaps the pace of change was too much for the organization - from John Sheehan to Lewis Rudolph to Lewis Stess in just a few years - going from an old-fashioned local guy to a gay Floridian. Maybe he met some prejudice and homophobia among the old timers.
John Sheehan was a “common man” who had a gift of keeping the discordance down, and bringing out the best in the bright, dedicated volunteers who made the United Way work. It’s hard work for the fund raisers to shake down your fellow employees for money; the hardest work in the world.
And Lewis Stess got off on the wrong foot from the beginning. Instead of going to the affiliates and sitting down with them and finding out how his organization could be of service to them; he pretty much ignored the affiliates, or ‘partners’ as they are often called, and broadcast public statements that aroused fears that this new order from headquarters in Alexandria, Va. would result in less funding for the organizations that are supported by the United Way. The umbrella organization’s overhead shot up dramatically, especially when it took over the orphaned HCAC program, First Call for Help.
The checks that Stess made out went first to internal operating programs, fundraisers, consultants and fellow administrators. What was left over went to the social services agencies. The balance sheets filed with the federal 990s returns show a continuing loss in net assets.
A hallmark of operations under Sheehan and Rudolph was the maintenance of a director’s fund, a cash reserve meant to sustain agency affiliates in case of emergency. The latest audits reveal a steady and dramatic drop in cash reserves, year by year: June, 2003, $662,248; June, 2004, $575,236; June, 2005, $444,848; June, 2006, $321,910.
According to a former staff member, the board, embarrassed by complaints from affiliates about falling revenues, promised to “level fund” programs. They dipped into the reserves, and the reserves vanished.
The common element in both the HCAC story and the United Way story is board dysfunction. There is some kind of “halo” affect that seems to cling to administrators of organizations who do good things. No one really looks at the books with a hard eye. The organizations, partly because they do perform such socially positive exploits, tend to live beyond their means. The accountant who prepared the United Way’s federal form 990 filings and audited returns, Rob Morton, told me that he talked to the audit committee of the organization about its problems, but a look at the presentations that were made at annual meetings shows nothing but accomplishments and good deeds. Bad news was no news fit to print or talk about publicly.
The scrambled eggs and bacon served up at the United Way kick-off
breakfast last fall at the Clarion Inn reminded me strongly of the
breakfasts served up at the USN Great Lakes Training Center in 1959.
Rudimentary. A great mountain of semi-scrambled eggs thrown into a warming
pan; bacon beaten into submission and left to marinate in the bottom of the
serving pan; pastries that could have been purchased at Cumberland Farms,
coffee that was well, ok.
All in all, the breakfast as a culinary event was nothing to write home about, but as a metaphor for the hope that springs eternal, it worked. The business people who were seated at the tables to listen to the speakers got a slender packet, the speakers were low-key and full of humility. The United Way of Hampshire County was trying to go back to its roots. There was nothing there that was Miami. No models wearing glitter, no little gifts by the place settings; there was no music.
Over the last two and a half years that the United Way was headed by Lewis Stess, the events were always stylish. There was always music, Latin sambas, jazz, so that one United Way veteran said that he was never able to hear what was going on. The financial report delivered by treasurer Priscilla Flynn was slim and only suggestive: The annual audit had not been completed.
Two things struck me that morning, however.
First, the United Way in Hampshire County, like many United Ways, clings to traditional sex roles. Dad brought home the bacon, mom looked out for the unfortunates of this world. The speakers were mainly women, the people eating breakfast were largely men. Mom told them how wonderful they were, and all the votes were taken were rubber-stamped with no discussion.
Second, the limp nature of the annual meeting stood in vivid contrast to the news stories and editorials in the Gazette and on downstreet.net. This was the annual meeting, but no one stood up to ask the people involved what had gone wrong with the organization over the last three years. Instead, there were baseball and sailing metaphors galore. “Anybody can be at the helm in calm seas.” said one person of the departing chair, Judi Marksbury. Everyone was asked to step up at the plate, like the Red Sox. United Way had had a bad year, but now they had strong hitters and a whole new outfield. The guest editorial in the Gazette by board member Rob Okun gave them the ruling metaphor. Baseball. Rob compared Marilyn Richards, the campaign director for 2006/2007 to Curt Schilling. The new interim president came with a stellar batting average. Everyone else was asked to stand up and take some applause, but not the heads of the United Way agencies. I don’t think many of them were there.
In fact, about two weeks ago United Way held a meeting for affiliates and only seven out of the 26 agencies sent representatives.
What Might Be Done to Fix It
When I was working at the Grove Street singles shelter many years ago, United Way agencies, and especially the Salvation Army, were the essential first step back for people who had ended up on the street, for whatever reason. The common element in most men’s stories was a messy divorce, and behind that causation was drinking, and maybe job trouble. So for whatever reason, you stop functioning, give way to despair and pretty soon all you’ve got in the world is a little plastic bag full of toiletries and clothing, and a bed in a shelter, and maybe, the comfort and companionship of the noon AA meeting. When a placement came through for someone in an apartment or rooming house, Linda Sopp and her wonderful checkbook down at the tiny Salvation Army office off of Brewster ourt was often the first stop. The Survival Center the second, to get some clothes and some groceries. A little money here, a little hand-holding there, and someone had a second start at the hard struggle to get going again. They had a bed in that empty apartment.
It’s what people call the safety net, and the checkbooks, the dvocates, the social workers and the front-line institutions have depended on the United Way for a long time to keep them going. Now with the United Way meltdown they increasingly have to devote precious time and money to mailings. And with more appeals hitting you and me at home, we are probably giving less.
I don’t have a high sense of confidence that things are going to ork out at our United Way. My guess is that by this time next year the board will vote to merge with Pioneer Valley United Way of Springfield and we’ll be part of a big regional organization.
I think that the key to UWHC’s survival is for the local leadership to swallow its pride and ask the national organization for help. There are a lot of resources available there if it asks for them. Beyond that, our United Way should put a high priority on hiring someone who has substantial United Way experience; someone who has the mission in his or her guts; someone who can pull the affiliates back in and make them respected partners in the organization. And even beyond that apologies should be made to the many people who have not been listened to over the years.
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